As someone who has been close to Russia’s leading opposition newspaper “Novaya Gazeta” for many years, it’s a very important development that Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev gave his first print interview to that paper and its brave editor-in-chief Dmitrii Muratov. The interview, which took place a few days ago in the Kremlin and was published Wednesday, gives the paper much needed protection at a time when the economic and human rights situation in Russia is worsening. (Until now, the paper’s main protection derived from the fact that former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev is a part-owner.)

Not only is Medvedev’s interview an important step for “Novaya,” but it may also tell us something significant about Russia’s still-new President Medvedev. But for that we probably need to wait for more evidence.

The interview was not completely unexpected. When I was in Moscow last month, my husband Stephen Cohen and I spent an afternoon at the newspaper’s offices, talking to Muratov–a tenacious, spirited and brave editor–who we first met in a Moscow basement cafeteria in 1993.

In our talks, he told us that the possibility of an interview with Medvedev had arisen in January, after the murder of yet another “Novaya” journalist by neo-Nazi extremists. A few days after the killing, Muratov and Gorbachev received an unexpected invitation to meet with Medvedev in the Kremlin. The President not only extended his sympathy to the paper and the journalist’s family–in distinct contrast to former President Putin’s words and actions after the assassination of “Novaya” reporter Anna Politkovskaya–but Medvedev also spoke of the importance of upholding laws to end neo-Nazi gang violence.

These were heartening words for Muratov–as was Medvedev’s talk of doing an interview with the newspaper after his return from the G-20 meetings. Also important was the President’s public statement that while he disagreed with the paper’s stance on most issues, he believed it was a “nuzhnaya gazeta.” (Translation–a needed newspaper.) For Muratov and his team, these words suggested a new level of protection for a paper which has published against great odds and paid a heavy price for its crusading investigations into high-level corruption, human rights violations, brutality in Chechnya and abuses of power. Several of its most courageous reporters –Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin and Anna Politkovskaya–have been murdered for their unflinching investigations.

So, for all who care about a free press, it’s worth paying attention to the Russian President’s decision to give his first print interview to a paper which has survived and thrived as an independent and oppositionist force.

And may Medvedev and the Russian government also work to see that the journalists’ killers be brought to justice.